On the Steelers: Expect a quiet start to free agency
March 9, 2016 12:25 AM
Steelers cornerback William Gay celebrates after intercepting a pass against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati in December.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Great Oklahoma Land Rush of 1893 had nothing on the one the NFL has staged every year since 1993, except maybe in outposts such as Pittsburgh, where the frenzy to put down stakes on available talent looks more like poking it with a stick.
The 24th version of unrestricted free agency in the NFL starts at 4 p.m. today, and the Steelers likely will take their usual position high above the fray, like buzzards waiting for some scraps to fall by the wayside.
It is hard to argue their approach because the Steelers have the third-best regular-season record in the NFL since free agency began. They are 230-137-1, a .626 winning percentage. Only New England (246-122) and Green Bay (235-132-1) have done better.
Leading up to this afternoon’s new NFL calendar year — the gun that fires to begin the free-agent signings — the Steelers were busy over the past few days getting a jump on things by signing their own.
They locked up one starter and two backups and may have another starter, Ramon Foster, under contract by today, a team source said last night.
Tuesday, they signed veteran starting cornerback William Gay to a three-year contract, a day after they signed safety Robert Golden and wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey to three-year deals. They previously signed two other veterans, tight end Matt Spaeth and long-snapper Greg Warren.
They would like to reclaim a few more of their own starters before they can become free agenets, such as left tackle Kelvin Beachum and nose tackle Steve McLendon. If not, there’s always a chance they’ll get them later as they have done with others who looked around at offers and then returned to them.
“We want to stay the course as best we can with as many of our own guys,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said recently, “and if there’s a guy from the outside who makes sense, then we’ll plug him in.”
Colbert gave as an example Mike Mitchell, an unrestricted free agent with the Carolina Panthers the Steelers signed in 2014. Free safety Ryan Clark left as a free agent, and the Steelers signed Mitchell as his replacement.
But the Steelers never did adequately replace strong safety Troy Polamalu after he was encouraged to retire last year. They re-signed Golden, but he’s only started three games in four years — all last season. Will Allen, their starter in 2015, will become a free agent today at age 34. Shamarko Thomas, once the heir apparent to Polamalu, has lost the faith of the coaching staff and hardly played on defense last season.
With safety rated as the deepest position with available free agents, perhaps the Steelers will try to sign another to pair with Mitchell. San Diego’s Eric Weddle, 31, is near the top of the list but there are plenty other competent safeties who won’t command as much and are younger, such as Isa Abdul-Quddus, 27, of the Lions who could compete with Golden to start.
They also could look at a tight end in free agency, perhaps San Diego’s Ladarius Green, and signing an offensive lineman is always a possibility, especially if they lose Beachum. Their glaring weakness is at cornerback, but the group of free agents there is not strong and the cost to sign even mediocre ones is high. They might re-sign another of their own free agent cornerbacks, Antwon Blake, before the fun ends.
There could be reductions along the way. Certainly Cortez Allen and his $4.4 million salary have to be in their crosshairs after he did little the past two seasons to show he deserves that kind of money.
Signing Gay returns one starter, and Ross Cockrell, their No. 3 corner from last season is back. Senquez Golson, their second-round pick in 2015, will return after missing his rookie season with a shoulder injury. They also are expected to select another cornerback high in the draft next month.
“Back like I never left,” Gay wrote on Instagram after he came to terms with the Steelers.
Gay, 31, was drafted by the Steelers in the fifth round in 2007 and had played all but one season with them, that when he left as a free agent for the Arizona Cardinals in 2012. He has started 92 games and was a defensive captain for them last season. He holds the NFL record with five consecutive interception returns for touchdowns among his 11 career pickoffs.
Steelers free agents:
Quarterbacks — Bruce Gradkowski, Michael Vick
Defensive line — Steve McLendon, Cam Thomas, Clifton Geathers
Offensive line — Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Doug Legursky, Byron Stingily
Secondary — Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin, Will Allen
Backfield — Will Johnson, Jordan Todman
Linebackers — Sean Spence, Terence Garvin (RFA)
NOTE — All are unrestricted except for Garvin, who is restricted.
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.
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